Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Potty talk

An American friend recently posted pictures of her summer cottage located in Sweden on Facebook. I snidely asked, “Where’s the outhouse?” “Oh, we have one,” she replied, “and it’s not just for show.”

And so began a spirited discussion of Swedish and American outhouses.

“It’s Pepto-Bismol pink on the inside. We haven’t repainted it yet,” wrote my friend.

“The one on our farm in Maine had a framed picture of Shirley Temple on the wall,” chimed in Stefan. “You got art hanging on yours?”

“We have art in ours,” I answered. “A nice display of faded calendar pictures and 45-year-old postcards of Stena Line ferries on their way to Denmark. Plus decade-old packets of floral sachet.” I didn’t mention the hurricane glass candle holder, the small red-curtained window that opens, and the little plastic heart that hangs outside and that my mother-in-law fills with wild rose blossoms in the summer.

“Ahhhh. Excellent,” replied Stefan. “The floral sachets sound enchanting. We weren’t that fancy, just a can of lye on the floor to occasionally sprinkle into the netherworld.”

I have to admit. Our outhouse is a quaint edifice. It sits under a tall white pine near the shore of the Baltic Sea in the Stockholm archipelago. I like to leave the door open when “doing my business” and admire the view. My mother was so inspired when she saw it that she went home and pimped up their own with bumper stickers. Prior to that, it was a little bland, decorated only with wallpaper remnants.

“But you’re missing a poster of the Swedish royal family,” wrote Kristina, after my friend posted pictures of her facility. “A must in every authentic Swedish outhouse!”

“When Victoria becomes queen, maybe I’ll put up a photo of Daniel and her," my friend responded. "Not out of disrespect, though. I think she’s great.”

This is important. Outhouse walls, like refrigerator doors, are places of honor and only venerated art is hung there. After all, you really should like what you see every day or are forced to view when nature calls.

“Is yours a single-seater?” Stefan queried my friend. “On the farm, we had two adult-sized holes at normal height and a child-sized, L-shaped hole set a little lower.” Yes, she answered, and it has a Styrofoam seat. “If only we’d had Styrofoam,” rued Stefan. “Hay just didn’t do the trick.” And it “probably sticks to your butt,” my friend added.

My uncle built the bench of his outhouse from a discarded bank sign. The hole is positioned in the center of the bank logo thereby actualizing every banker’s fantasy – a deposit people are eager to make but reluctant to withdraw.

A few people admired the magazine rack on the wall of my friend’s facility. “We have lots of magazines – mostly home decorating, some old comic books, and some Swedish Science Illustrated. Stuff to satisfy any customer,” my friend wrote, although an acquaintance named Ann warned that magazines could be dangerous. “You might never get some people out.”

My friend’s biffy is truly the Cadillac of latrines, although it has no heat. It’s also eco-friendly. Unlike American outhouses, which are usually pit style (porta potties don’t count), Swedish models are equipped with buckets, which are subsequently lidded and hauled away or whose contents are composted as does my friend. More and more people, however, are installing electric toilets that incinerate the waste, and I’ve heard talk about discontinuing bucket collection. For anyone who feels nostalgic, there’s an outhouse museum in Eskilstuna, in the Old Town, that commemorates and preserves the city's last public outhouse, which was functional through 1988.

Stefan asked if my friend’s family uses tissue or yesterday’s newspaper, noting that his family had been “old Sears catalog folks.” But toilet paper was clearly visible in the photo along with the all important extra roll, which brings me to my concluding remark.

When I was a child, my mother always kept a phone book in the car in case she got lost on her way somewhere and needed to look up a phone number or address. One day we were driving the back roads of northern Minnesota when we needed to make an "emergency stop." As my dad ran into the bushes with the phone book, Mom hollered after him, “Don’t use the Yellow Pages!”

And never use the glossy ones.

Monday, January 3, 2011


One of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons is when Homer thinks he’s going to die. At the end, when he's still alive, he vows to live each new day to the fullest. The program closes with Homer lying on the sofa munching a bowl of pork rinds watching bowling on TV. As the closing credits roll, there is no music. The only audio is the sound of bowling pins toppling and pork rinds crunching. The moment is sublime.

I recall a similar moment of my own. It was a cold, dark afternoon in January years ago, but I was warm and comfy indoors with my ten-week old daughter snuggled close as I nursed her. I, myself, sucked a piece of peppermint candy as I watched Oprah (I confess!) on TV. I was totally content and completely at peace.

As I think about sublimity, I’ve concluded it’s simply complete and pleasurable satisfaction of all senses – hear, see, smell, taste, and touch – at the same time. More often than not, it arises from simple pleasures – soaking in a hot tub listening to music or gazing at majestic mountain scenery in pine-scented sunshine. The trick is to recognize and cherish the sublime as it happens because it’s usually fleeting.

It’s so basic, yet think how much energy we waste seeking the ultimate thrill or consummate experience when sublimity is attainable almost every day. Is this what they mean by “living in the moment”? I think I’m finally catching on.

Given a second chance, most of us like to think we would live each day to the fullest or accomplish something important to humanity. But isn’t this really self-flattery? When all is said and done, aren’t most of us happy enough with a chill out moment in front of the TV with a bowl of our favorite vice food?

And what’s wrong with that?